Worried about context-less WaniKani studies

Hello all! This is my first post here so forgive me if this is in the wrong place.

I started WK about a year ago, but frankly, I wasn’t serious about my studies until very recently. I’ve begun a bit of daily immersion now and I’ve started studying a bit of grammar in some other places as well, but my main focus has been getting back on the WK horse and staying on it. It’s been a bit of a slow process getting the ball rolling again, but for various personal reasons, I’m much more prepared in every way possible to commit to this and get deeper into actually learning this language.

Anyways, you can skip all of that if you’d like. Here’s my question/concern: I’m a bit worried that I might be getting good at WaniKani, and not actually learning much of practical usage. Here’s what I’ve noticed, for example.

Take a word like 今すぐ, meaning “immediately.” Right around the same time I learned that word, I was also taught the word 今まで, meaning “until now”. Both use 今, obviously, and then both have another word after it, giving them both very different meanings. My concern here is that if I’m just seeing these words in the context of WK, I might not fully be “learning” the words but rather just learning “here’s what WK wants me to say”.

For example, let’s say I get both of them in the same review session, which has happened a couple times. At one point, I got one of these words wrong, although I knew it was one or the other. I checked the right answer, moved on. Then I got the other word. This time, I didn’t know what it was because I knew what it was, I knew what it was because I’d already gotten the other wrong in a 50/50 chance. So I knew simply through process of elimination that it was the answer I chose previously but got incorrect, and then I moved on. I did review it, I re-read the mnemonics afterwards, tried to drill it into my head, but these words are still planted in there as “one of two things, if you get one wrong, it’s the other”. And I’m worried that’s all my brain is knowing, and that if I were to naturally run into these words I wouldn’t know what they were in a real-life context.

Another example would be alternate readings. When WK introduces a new kanji, as you know, it gives you one, maybe two or three common readings of that kanji. It tends to introduce you to the on’yomi readings specifically. Later on, you’ll probably see that same kanji on its own (not in part of another word or phrase), and then when a single kanji word is alone, it usually takes the kun’yomi reading.

This is awesome and I love that we get both because obviously both are necessary. But, I feel like my brain is more just looking at the color around the kanji and using that to remember the reading rather than actually learning “this is on’yomi, this is kun’yomi”. This problem is especially exacerbated when words either take alternate meanings or are exceptions to the general reading rules (like 下町 being kun’yomi). In instances like that, again, it feels less like I’m learning the readings or the rules properly and more just learning what WK wants me to say.

Obviously the WK stuff is all correct, so it’s not like I’m learning wrong information. And when things are more straightforward this isn’t an issue at all, it’s when I see two similar words or weird exceptions in the context of WK that I have these concerns.

Now, I’m wondering if maybe my concerns are a bit invalid for one reason, and that reason is the word 今日. This is a weird reading for both kanji, as you probably know. However, at this point in my immersion, I’ve seen and heard it enough that I just know how to read it and what it means immediately in any context (more so when reading and less when listening since I still need to work on that). If my concerns were totally valid 100% of the time, then I’d never have been able to identify that word anywhere besides in WK.

So I guess what I’m getting at is this: first, does anyone have any tips for maybe avoiding this type of “gaming the system” that my brain seems to be doing automatically? Because it kind of feels like when you’re taking a multiple choice test and you know it’s not two of the options so you have a 50/50 shot. It’s not even recognition, it’s just getting good at taking a test, a totally different skill set from actually learning the material.

Second, will this problem likely be cleared up with more immersion in the same way that 今日 was? If so, do you have any tips for trying to be more mindful and conscious about recognizing that you actually know a word? Because I am a bit concerned too that I might just be brushing over stuff when I see it in the wild, stuff that I’ve actually learned from WK because I just assume I don’t know it since I don’t recognize it in whatever the different context might be.

Thanks for reading! I hope that wasn’t too much or too rambly, I partially wanted to just get all of this out of my head in addition to genuinely wanting some answers from more experienced learners. Thank you in advance for your help!


The “gaming” of the system will work itself out eventually, unless it’s a burn review, in which case you should probably intentionally not answer the other item. And yes, immersing yourself in reading will resolve issues of initially having a vague understanding. The idea is never to just rely on WK. But what WK does is give you the foundation so that when you see a word in a book or something, you don’t have to exert additional effort figuring out the kanji and its reading, which can be a big drag on reading early on.


You will see many people advocating consuming native content as soon as possible. Go read manga or listen to anime or read NHK easy news. You will see the words in context. This will reinforce you Wanikani studies and fix the issue you are concerned about.

This one is not a big deal. There is not much value in knowing whether a reading is on or kun. The rules to tell them apart have too many exceptions to be of much use. Most people just learn the reading that goes with the item without worrying whether this is on or kun.

Personally I didn’t run into this problem, so I may not be of much use. I think that if you get one item in a related pair right and the other wrong you are not likely to see them again in the same session because the SRS intervals will differ. Then your gaming of the system tricks won’t be applicable anymore because you no longer see one item earlier that gives you a clue to the other item later in the session. I suspect this issue is a short term one that resolves itself through the mechanics of SRS.


While this can happen if both items are in the same review session, the one you got wrong will reappear earlier than the one you got right due to process of elimination, meaning they won’t be together in the next session, for the later SRS stages this might even make a difference of days to weeks between the two words. So at one point you’re going to have to know them. Furthermore, since both of them use the same kanji and reading, you’ll still be reinforcing the reading.

As for the alternate readings. When you encounter a kanji in the wild, it will always be in the context of a vocabulary word, so there’s not really a reason to get confused by the color behind the review. You’ll rarely ever need to know if a reading is actually on or kun, you just need to know how to read the full word, so if you can answer the vocabulary questions correctly, you can read those words in the wild. Usually the reading WK teaches you during the kanji session is also later used in some of the vocabulary words for that kanji to reinforce the reading.

The only outliers where knowing reading “rules” would be useful is for words you don’t know, in which case you’ll have to take an guess (or preferably look the word up). There are some guidelines as to when on or kun readings are used for given words, although these are full of exceptions, so usually you’ll have to look the word up anyway to be sure. Eventually you’ll also just develop a feel for when a reading is on vs when a reading is kun. On readings tend to not be longer than 2 morae, whereas no such restriction applies to kun readings. Eventually you’ll also just get a feel of what “sounds right”, sorry if that’s a bit vague :grin:

All in all, I wouldn’t worry too much. As you go on most of the material will become more familiar to the point where you’ll just recognize it if you see it in a native text. Reading a lot also helps solidify readings and meanings, but you already seem to be reading a bit. Just keep going and keep reading, personally I found that the further I got into wanikani, the easier reading became, so at least for me it seems to have been working :grin:

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Worry no longer! We have plenty of context for you.
Welcome to the WK book club department…


Interesting that people talk about reading. Of course it can help but I can’t help but wonder when is a good time to start reading in Japanese? I most certainly don’t know enough vocabulary to be able to read sentences in books, let alone tweets, but I do find myself being able to pick out certain words, and even guess some words correctly. But I most certainly would almost never be able to make sense of a sentence unless it were super basic.
Now with that being said I wonder if this is really the right thing to do. Start trying to read and just keep coming back as I learn more…
Actually, a huge hurdle I have with reading (that I hope gets cleared up with time and learning more vocab) is knowing WHEN a kanji is on its own or next to hiragana… Makes reading hard.

On another note I like how you relate the colors to the readings… My brain does NOT do this for whatever reason so I still need to think for a minute and recall what reading to use. I think this has actually helped me better guess what a vocab word could possibly sound like because my brain is beginning to be trained in such a way that I will see a kanji on its own or with kana = kun (usually) and one or more kanji together = on (usually).

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This makes a lot of sense to me, and I did figure that immersing more would end up ultimately being the answer. Shockingly, “keep doing the work” actually is the way to improve, I suppose :stuck_out_tongue:

Thanks for your answer! I still have some concerns that maybe not all of these words are really sticking, but also I’m still maybe not reading as much as I should be? I’m kind of still trying to get to about level 10 before jumping into reading more consistently, since right now it’s kind of just a “whenever I happen to see it while looking for audiovisual immersion material” type thing.

I’ve noticed that when I see kanji I know in the wild, I’m pretty good at very quickly knowing the meaning, but the readings take a bit more effort. Outside of a few really common words (今日, 日本語, stuff like that), I almost feel nervous about trying to parse the reading since I know that the kanji could exist as part of a word I don’t know. I’m also not sure I’m seeing the words I’m learning enough yet, but my vocabulary is obviously still pretty small.

I’ll keep on keeping on and hope that you end up being right, thank you!

I try to get at least 30 minutes of active listening immersion in a day, but I probably should add like at least 30 (probably more as I get more confidently minutes of reading in as well. Reading is a lot more taxing for me than listening though, significantly so, in fact. I’m glad to hear that immersion works for sorting this out. I figured it would, but also I guess I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing it wrong since I can’t help but feel guilty every time my brain finds a shortcut rather than actually remembering the word.

Regarding the on/kun thing, it’s less that I’m worried about actually memorizing which is which and more that I know that knowing them helps with picking up words you don’t know yet. Because like, it might not be super valuable to be able to say “oh, めい is the on’yomi reading of 名”, but it would be helpful if I ran into 名人 in the wild (without knowing how to read it) and could guess the reading of 名 because I knew that めい is how 名 is normally read when it’s with another kanji. At the very least, even if I wasn’t reading it out loud or didn’t ever need to say it, it’d help me search for it in an online dictionary since I’d know how to type it.

Lastly, I honestly hadn’t even considered that the SRS itself would work out a problem like that. Your answer there is extremely reassuring to me because now that you mention it, you’re totally right- one of the two would more likely end up dragging behind the other until eventually it got drilled into my head.

Thank you for the effort you put into answering all of my questions, it’s much appreciated!

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Thanks for pointing out that the SRS would gradually help sort some of these problems out- I hope you’re right, and I’d not even considered that eventually the similar words would probably be spaced out which should help resolve that issue.

It’s not so much that I’m getting confused by the color and more that the color feels like it’s what my brain is internalizing more than the “correct” readings itself. I’m certain you’re right that most of the time you’re going to see the kanji in the context of an actual word, and obviously, there’s only really going to be one way to say any given word as far as I know? But the issue I’m running into is more related to words I don’t yet know, I think.

For instance, a kanji like 名 is both a word and a part of a word, right? So I’m worried that sometimes I’m just remembering the color around it and using that rather than internalizing the rules. When 名 is surrounded by pink, I know it’s めい. When it’s surrounded by purple, I know it’s な. But that doesn’t help me if I run into that kanji as part of 名人, if I didn’t already know that word. If I had to guess that reading without ever having seen it before, I’m not confident that I’ve memorized it enough to know which of those two readings would be the better guess. Eventually, in WK, I’d come to learn the word as a whole regardless of the readings and learn that it’s めいじん, but what if I run into 名 as part of a word that I haven’t learned yet or that isn’t in WK? I suppose the answer is “just look it up” and I’m sure that’s really just all you can do, but if there’s a cleaner strategy, that’d be nice- because right now I think I’d be pretty much in the dark.

The rest of your post kind of seems to illustrate that yeah, it really is just practice. Which I’m definitely going to continue to do, without a doubt, so I’m sure that these problems will work themselves out so long as I don’t slack on immersion. I guess it just feels “wrong” right now to get the right answer because my brain took a shortcut that’s only applicable on WK and wouldn’t be anywhere else.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer so thoroughly, it was very very helpful!


I have not considered this use of the on vs kun distinction. I do all my readings on the web and I use the rikaikun Chrome extension for words I don’t know. Rikaikun is a dictionary that activates when you move the mouse over a word. Then a popup with the dictionary entries shows up. I don’t need to guess the reading and type anything to consult this dictionary.

Even then I believe the SRS timings will work in such manner that they seldom go back in sync.

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Absolutely awesome resource, you’d better believe I’m going to check out every single link in that top level thread and see if I can find any to start jumping into now.

I’m kind of starting to feel like more immersion, even if I’m not there yet in WK, might end up being beneficial in the long run but it’s probably going to be especially painful early on. Furigana’s going to be very helpful for looking up words so I might start tackling some Shonen this weekend and see how that treats me.

Thank you for the link, it looks like it’s going to be very helpful!

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Look it up is usually the safest bet yes. There are a few guidelines that might help (e.g a kanji on its own is usually kun, a word made solely out of multiple kanji is usually on, and a word that’s a mix of kanji and kana is usually kun), but those are basically just educated guesses.

At first I struggled with getting the right reading a lot too. The only real “solution” I found is to just keep reading, the more you practice the more you get a feel for it :grin:

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Obviously I’m still a beginner so literally do not take this as advice at all. But for me personally, I’m starting to branch into immersion already. I’m mostly working on listening and watching YouTube and anime without subs, but I’m reading a bit more every day.

I guess for me while WK is inherently quite satisfying (who doesn’t like watching the numbers get bigger?), it can be a bit boring and taxing, especially if I have a lot of reviews and can’t absorb and retain the new information in a new lesson. I’m having less and less of an issue with the ambiguity that comes from reading/hearing words that I don’t understand, so immersion is gradually becoming less frustrating. If anything I wish I’d started immersion much much sooner, I don’t think I’d have taken the extended break I did if I had just started finding engaging content at an earlier stage.

Also furigana helps whenever I see it because you can use that to easily look up a word if you don’t know it/know the kanji, so Shonen seems like a resource I should start utilizing a lot more.

Regarding the colors, yeah, I think that it might possibly make my review sessions a bit faster but it’s very very very much not helpful for actually learning the kanji/word. You’re probably in a better boat for not doing that, to be honest.

Yeah, I was kind of under the impression that one of the biggest benefits of WK would be helping me with guessing at readings, which would help me with looking up words. And it probably is for some words/kanji, especially the actual Vocab words themselves, but not so much for isolated kanji. I prefer reading on paper whenever I can so that seems like it’d be a helpful skill to develop. Because even if I saw 下町 and incorrectly guessed it was read as かちょう or something, both of those readings will at least will get me to the proper kanji on an online dictionary where I could find the proper reading. And if I were to be in a situation where I was reading aloud (or even just trying to sound it all out in my head), it’d be nice to be able to at least guess at it. There’s probably plenty of other uses too, like, if I’m watching a show with Japanese subtitles, being able to guess at the reading will help me keep up with the speaker if I guess right, stuff like that.

Also, I’m going to look into that extension, that sounds like it could be useful if I then plug the word/sentence into an Anki deck. Thank you again!

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Yeah, I think maybe learning the rules was a double edged sword, because since I know those rules, I want to be able to apply them- but I can only apply them if I correctly identify which reading is which for each kanji, which then ends up being a bit stressful when I honestly couldn’t tell you for most kanji I know, at least not quickly. I know both of the readings, I just couldn’t quickly tell you which was which type of reading.

But yeah, just swallowing my pride and looking it up when I need to do so is probably going to be the way to go. Thank you for the help and for the encouragement, I’m still going to keep up the practice so don’t worry about that!

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On’yomi readings tend to sound “similarly” for lack of a better word. They are usually short readings and once you’ve seen a lot of kanji with similar on’yomi readings, you’ll just start associating some readings as being on’yomi. Kun’yomi readings tend to be a bit more varied. So eventually you’ll be able to do what you’re describing with unknown words, it just takes some time and practice.

Looking something up is going to be quite common. Sentences where I can make it to the end without having to consult a dictionary are still rare :grin:

It does. I use to have to use the radical tool on Jisho a lot in order to look up Kanji. But now I can make a pretty good guess at a reading. It’s definitely not going to be perfect, but I’d say I have at least an 80% chance to guess a reading for most material aimed at mass consumption.

Honestly I think you’re overthinking it a bit. :wink:

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'Gaming the system’s is 100% unavoidable! It’s how the human brain works. We see patterns and reduce those patterns to as little data as possible.

Back when I would make paper flashcards for various college classes, sometimes I would remember the back of the flash card, not because I could answer the question on the front, but because I recognized that little ketchup stain in the corner. Flashcards are great for building associations between things in our mind, but we can’t always control what is being associated.

I want to share my own Wanikani example I came across a few months ago. I was struggling a lot with distinguishing 年 and 世, both from level 4 - two very different words and very different shapes, except for one detail. It turns out I already knew 年 from previous study, but I didn’t know it as well as I thought. My brain had reduced the whole shape to ‘the one with the little rectangle near the middle’. Well, turns out that describes quite a few kanji, so it’s a very bad model that my brain developed when I only knew a handful of kanji. It worked just fine for that small amount, but it quickly broke down when 世 was introduced. At first, I would never get 年 wrong and often get 世 wrong. Soon, I was seeing 世 much more often because it was forever an apprentice item. My brain flipped the association of ‘little rectangle’ to 世, so… I failed my next 年 review. After I noticed the problem, I worked to focus on these two shapes until my brain could distinguish them, and now it seems silly that I ever mixed them up.

You are already ahead of the game in two ways. First, you’re already immersing! This is great because you get to see the kanji in more contexts than ‘pink background’ or ‘purple background’. As you immerse more, your brain will de-associate them from those colors, and you will just know them. Second, you’re asking exactly the right questions! It’s great that you noticed your thought process in this case. There will be many more like it! You can always choose to fail a review if that happens, basically saying ‘nice try, brain, but I want to know this item better than that’. Even if you don’t, (assuming it is not a burn review), you will see the item again and have another opportunity to learn it in time!

I think that’s around where I was when I was level 5. But now when I see 名人, my brain is automatically thinking that めい is the obvious first pronunciation to try when it’s part of a word (in spite of the fact that 名 is one of the earlier kanji I learned, before Wanikani, in the context of the word 名前, where it is pronounced な.

I’ve basically been ignoring which readings are kun vs on this entire time, but my brain seems to be internalizing some rules about it. It wasn’t doing it that way when I was level 5, and I can’t say when it started, and I can’t say it makes sense… but I can say that it’s likely something that will happen for you with practice.

I find it really helps to put your lessons in shuffle mode, so that you don’t learn the vocab for the same kanji all in a row. It’s even better to space your lessons out over several days.

WaniKani isn’t perfect in a lot of ways, but it gives you a good start. I see you’re only level 5 so you may not be able to read very much yet, but around level 10 you’ll probably be able to read some beginner stuff with the help of a dictionary. Tadoku graded readers are also good because they don’t use many kanji.